In the wake of Friday's ghastly events in Connecticut, many Americans -- politicians and pundits especially -- have added their voices to the "do something" chorus. This impulse is understandable. It's human. Twenty-six innocent victims are dead, the majority of them precious young children. The desire to help, to act, to fix can be overwhelming. The president, a father of two young girls, has played the role of grief-counselor-in-chief in recent days; at times, he's barely managed to suppress his sadness and maintain his composure during public statements. Pressure is now mounting on him to prominently champion new gun control legislation -- a cause to which he's paid lip service, but has seemed to approach with trepidation in practice. Today we learn that Obama will apparently promote renewing the federal assault weapons ban sometime next year, but how involved he's prepared to be in that process remains to be seen. ("Sometime next year" doesn't exactly sound like an impassioned rally cry, does it?) Liberal gun control advocates may cheer this development, but they've grown frustrated with Obama over the last four years, sensing that he's unwilling to be the vocal and aggressive advocate they believe current circumstances demand. Will that frustration continue to mount in 2013? The Left-wing UK Guardian says the president's inaction could rile liberal critics even further:
Critics say that the president, for all his sorrowful words after each mass killing, has not only visibly failed to address gun control, he has quietly acquiesced in a slew of national, state and local laws in recent years that have generally made it easier to buy and carry weapons. Mostly his inaction is attributed to a lack of political gumption – some might say folly – for taking on the powerful gun lobby, particularly the National Rifle Association. The question now is whether the tragedy of Newtown will change that. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, named after James Brady, the former White House press secretary who was badly wounded during an assassination attempt against President Ronald Reagan, has been among the leading critics of Obama over his failure to confront the gun industry. It gave the president an "F" at the end of his first year in office for giving in to the "guns anywhere mentality of the gun lobby" and for "muzzling" his own cabinet on the issue.
The president promised in his 2008 election campaign to press for a reinstatement of the 1994 ban on assault weapons and large magazine clips which expired under the Bush administration. But Obama did not act on the issue. Apparently fearful of voters with strong pro-gun views in swing states, he shied away from pressing for fresh controls. Instead, since coming to power, Obama has signed laws allowing people to carry guns in national parks and failed to use his existing powers to block the import of semi-automatic weapons and clips that hold large numbers of bullets.
While the Left remains unsatisfied by Obama's rhetoric and gestures, many conservatives fear the president's words may morph into real action. Today's announcement likely reinforces those concerns. But how likely is the White House to charge headlong into a fierce political battle over gun control? It's impossible to predict the future, of course, but Obama's previous behavior suggests his top legislative priorities lie elsewhere. Under intense questioning from the press, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to characterize the president's level of commitment to gun control:
REPORTER: But, Jay, as legislative items go, is this now a priority?
CARNEY: I'm not going to rank priorities. This is clearly extremely important.
REPORTER: But he did last night -- he said -- he made it sound like this was the most important thing on the nation's agenda.
CARNEY: I'm not going to rank priorities. We have to take -- the President just met with the Speaker of the House to continue discussions on the fiscal cliff and efforts to get our deficits under control. We have the priority of immigration reform. We have further steps we need to take to enhance economic growth and job creation. And we need to take meaningful action when it comes to the problem and scourge of gun violence in America. We need to do all of it. And this President is committed to just that.
What's going on here? I discussed this issue with Fox News' Megyn Kelly on her program this afternoon, positing that the White House's apparent hedging may reflect a mix of politics and practical reality:
I'd like to flesh out both points a bit more:
(1) On politics, as I mention in the clip, overall support for broad-based gun control is hovering around an all-time low. The vast majority of Americans support basic gun rights. Yes, majorities say they'd back bans on "semi-automatic" or "assault" weapons, but Tim Carney explains that much of that sentiment can be attributed to confusion over terminology. (In short, most guns are now "semi automatic"). In general, public concern over the availability of firearms tends to peak right after tragedies, before dissipating as time goes on. Governance and politics are largely about prioritization, and the president may very well worry that an acrimonious fight over gun rights could drain the political capital he'd rather spend on other projects, such as immigration reform. Plus, there's the crude issue of vote-whipping. The 2014 Senate elections favor Republicans because (a) midterm electorates tend to lean more conservative, and (b) Democrats are defending more seats, including several in red states. As 2012 proved, anything can happen, but I wonder if vulnerable Democratic incumbents in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and West Virginia are eager to cross voters and the NRA in a series high-scrutiny gun votes.
(2) In reality, many of the so-called "solutions" being bandied about now would have done little or nothing to prevent the Newtown massacre. As I wrote last night at Hot Air, I've never been a dogmatic conservative on Second Amendment issues, but empirical evidence should matter more than raw emotions:
On one hand, it seems indisputable that firearms — high-powered, high-capacity ones in particular — make these sorts of horrors significantly easier to perpetrate. Yes, other weapons have been used in acts of mass violence, but guns are an especially efficient tool to wreak human carnage. The body counts in Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown would almost certainly have been substantially lower if those deranged individuals were wielding knives, to pick one example (click the previous link and look for the death toll). On the other hand, there’s considerable evidence that higher gun ownership actually diminishes violent crime in the aggregate. I’ve also internalized the truth that malevolent actors will often find a way to get their hands on firearms one way or another, so disarming the overwhelmingly law-abiding public would amount to a unilateral disarmament — rendering innocents virtually defenseless in the face of in-progress gun violence. Waiting for the police to arrive mid-rampage isn’t much of a solution for imminent targets. It’s also a fact that strict gun laws do not magically solve the problem of gun violence. See, for instance, the horrific Chicago bloodletting. Indeed, the Newtown shooter reportedly used weapons that were purchased legally and dutifully registered by someone else (his mother), who lived in a state with restrictive laws. Should Congress pass the ‘Don’t-Let-Your-Psychotic-Son-Steal-Your-Guns-To-Kill-You-And-Others’ Act of 2012? What would that accomplish, exactly? And beyond these legitimate practical concerns, there’s also that pesky detail called the United States Constitution, and the individual liberties it enshrines.
Indeed, Connecticut already has an "assault weapons" ban in place. And now the supposed "fix" is to re-impose similar legislation nationally? Even as overall gun violence and murders have dropped since its expiration? Also, despite the prevalence of high-profile mass shootings since 2009, experts who study the ghoulish phenomenon have concluded they're no more common today than they've been over the past three decades. Meanwhile, some on the Left are demanding a "national conversation" on guns -- so long as that conversation involves concessions from the gun rights crowd, and unthinking acceptance of discredited gun policy theories. Even as a squishy "pragmatist" on this stuff, I think Instapundit's list of suggested conversation starters is a must-read:
- Why do people who favor gun-control call people who disagree with them murderers or accomplices to murder? Is that constructive?
- Would any of the various proposals have actually prevented the tragedy that is the supposed reason for them?
- When you say you hope that this event will finally change the debate, do you really mean that you hope you can use emotionalism and blood-libel-bullying to get your way on political issues that were losers in the past?
- If you’re a media member or politician, do you have armed security? Do you have a permit for a gun yourself? (I’m asking you Dianne Feinstein!) If so, what makes your life more valuable than other people’s?
- Do you know the difference between an automatic weapon and a semi-automatic weapon? Do your public statements reflect that difference?
- If guns cause murder, why have murder rates fallen as gun sales have skyrocketed?
- Have you talked about “Fast and Furious?” Do you even know what it is? Do you care less when brown people die?
- When you say that “we” need to change, how are you planning to change? Does your change involve any actual sacrifice on your part?
Parting thought, via Allahpundit: Is it time for brow-furrowed discussions about whether the government should monitor "Halo"-style gamers and keep tabs on vegans? The Newtown shooter (I try to avoid using his name) reportedly fell into both categories. I'm not trying to be flippant, but how far can we take this logic? Society's response to violent evil is an extraordinarily complex question. Faith, family, morality, compassion and mental health should all be part of the equation as we search for answers. I'm not prima facie opposed to considering some limited forms of gun control as part of that conversation, too -- but anti-gun advocates must rely on meaningful facts to make their case. Thus far, their strategy seems to largely consist of moral preening, 'heart-strings' appeals, and bullying.
Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson. He is co-authors with Mary Katharine Ham for their new book End of Discussion: How the Left's Outrage Industry Shuts Down Debate, Manipulates Voters, and Makes America Less Free (and Fun).
Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography